Evil has a spotted history, as far as video games are concerned. Despite the omnipresence of ‘bad guys’ – you can barely swing a righteously murdered minion without slapping the smug grin off some villain’s face – the concept of evil is curiously under-illuminated. Most games aren’t really interested in questions of ethics; they merely use the ancient dichotomy of good vs. evil as a convenient and ready-made means of motivating a plot and a player within it.
In the realm of the RPG, there are some examples that engage with questions about good and evil in a mature and thoughtful way. The world of the Witcher series is often a brutal place, and no matter what choices you make, you will always be a part of this imperfect, messy world. There are few true villains here, and fighting them doesn’t necessarily turn you into a hero. You can never transcend into moral purity. But neither are you allowed to sink into deepest depravity. You are caught in a moral limbo of shades of grey.
Other RPGs – say KotoR or Fable – give you the opportunity to be a proper villain, usually the kind of gleefully sadistic cartoon caricature that harms people for fun and profit. This is evil in the name of player empowerment and choice: being a cruel asshole is just another dish on the varied buffet of RPGs. It’s bland, doesn’t really go with anything and kind of looks like it may be well past its expiration date, but people still like that it’s there. After all, it’s ‘content’. It’s stuff to do. It’s fun.
When I first heard about Tyranny, Obsidian’s latest RPG, I was a little sceptical. The marketing suggested the “it’s good to be bad” philosophy of Dungeon Keeper, a simple inversion that may be humorous and perversely satisfying, but ultimately not very interesting. Moreover, they had a tough act to follow: Pillars of Eternity, as far as I’m concerned, was a genuine masterpiece and one of the very best RPGs of its kind of any period. Would Tyranny be more of the same with a different coat of – blood red – paint?
I’m relieved to say that Tyranny surprised me on many levels. Let’s start with its depiction of evil. Tyranny is set in a world of constant warfare and hegemonic evil. The Overlord Kayros – an ancient, unseen force that is more god than emperor – has subjugated nearly the whole of the known world through armed forces and the so-called Edicts, magical proclamations that can bring ruin to whole regions. The last bastion of independence is a remote region called the Tiers, a collection of small kingdoms and cities.
At the beginning of the game, Kayros’ armies, the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, invade the Tiers. The former is a disciplined elite force, the latter a raging mob, and the first hours of the game are spent negotiating between the two, choosing sides, or trying to mediate. For anyone familiar with D&D, this may sound like the old-fashioned distinction between lawful and chaotic evil, and in some ways, it is. But the actual scenarios you encounter are far less dry than this abstract distinction suggests. Both factions are irredeemably evil, but you will be torn between them.
The elite Disfavored are contemptuous of the lives of ‘common’ people and gladly follow duty into whatever atrocities it leads them. But they are also honest and honour bound. The Scarlet Chorus, on the other hand, is a plague of locusts ravaging the land, slaughtering civilians on its way. At the same time, however, they are strangely egalitarian and meritocratic, allowing even their enemies to join and rise in their ranks. Make no mistake: this isn’t about moral grey areas. The Overlord and his armies are indisputably evil. But it isn’t a singular, monolithic evil, but a composite one formed by many different people and through different, often incompatible agendas. It’s a game about shades of black, not grey.
The most interesting aspect about Tyranny’s treatment of evil is its positioning of the player. You aren’t an empty vessel, a nameless Chosen One looking for adventures. Neither are you a semi-independent character with a given personal history and their own character traits and motivations like Geralt. Instead, you quite literally are someone who has a role to play in this world: you are a Fatebinder – a judge – in the service of Kyros’ adjudicator Tunon. No matter what background you pick during character creation or whether you wield a giant sword or a magic staff, you will always be a Fatebinder. From the beginning, you have power: you are asked to pass judgement, to explain and interpret the law of Kyros, and people listen to you and fear you. At the same time, you are bound to these same laws and are merely a cog in a machine that threatens to crush you should you fail to fall in line. Tyranny wisely upholds this tension for a long time, and exploits it in clever ways.
Being a judge in the service of Kyros is both restrictive and liberating. You can try to be decent, to mitigate the evil committed by other agents of Kyros, but – at least at the beginning – you will always be complicit in this evil simply by being a part of this system, this war mongering empire. Even during what is essentially still character creation, the player is forced to take part in atrocities, to make hard, messy decisions. The first few years of the conquest of the Tiers is presented through a series of choices on a campaign map, and they will influence the course of the game proper in quite dramatic ways. It is a clever, effective way of firmly anchoring the player in this world and implicating them in its evil before the game has even started. From the very beginning, the game lets you know that your ‘hero’ has duties, responsibility, and influence.
Your choices are given meaning through restriction. In a way, this seems to be the overarching design philosophy behind the game as a whole. In almost every way, this is a more limited, focused and leaner experience than Pillars of Eternity and the games it emulates. Your character’s story isn’t one of epic adventuring, but of a series of scenarios both diplomatic and martial. If you’re looking for a myriad of side quests, large maps and intricate dungeons, you may be severely disappointed. Tyranny’s structure and pacing is pretty tightly controlled both by your previous decisions and the invisible hands of its designers. Quite a few features usually associated with RPGs are missing: There are no races to choose from during character creation (you are human by default, as is almost everyone else), no companion quests or romances, and few books/letters/diaries to read. At around 30 hours for a pretty thorough playthrough, it’s also markedly shorter than similar RPGs.
Most of the time, this leaner design pays off and is an excellent fit for the kind of scenario it tries to evoke. It creates a strong sense of urgency and consequence, and the control the designers exert over the flow of the game also allows for far greater reactivity. There’s an absolutely stunning amount of choices both small and great, and the game respects and responds to your decisions with very few cheap sleights of hand. Every large main quest in the game has at least two, sometimes three, major factions that, depending on your actions, could become either allies and quest providers, enemies to be fought, or something in-between. Often, there’s remarkable flexibility in this system, allowing you to betray alliances in the middle of a quest. Any character you meet belongs to a faction, and every faction has two independent gauges – one for Favour, the other for Wrath – measuring your standing. Companions and other major characters have their own, individual gauges. And as if this wasn’t enough, gaining Favour or Wrath will unlock unique abilities that are tied to specific factions. In the case of your companions, you gain cooperative abilities that involve both a companion and your main character. All of this means that, after a single playthrough, there’s much I haven’t seen yet. There are two companions that never joined me, and one major region I wasn’t able to visit. And who knows how many countless lines of dialogue, quests or faction-tied abilities I missed due to the consequences of my decisions.
And those aren’t the only aspects of the game that are cautiously-yet-successfully experimental. Even though its RPG system is based on the one designed for Pillars of Eternity, there are some major changes. Most surprisingly, there are no actual classes to choose from during character creation. Instead, there’s a more flexible, fluent approach that is reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls series. Also, rather than providing spells to unlock, the player creates and modifies their own by combining various kinds of runes that can be found throughout the game.
The world Obsidian created is quite far removed from your typical medieval fantasies of adventurers, goblins and peasants. Sure, it’s far less weird than, say, the surreal worlds of Planescape: Torment, but there’s a distinct streak of the unfamiliar and slightly strange, and some of its landscapes and characters capture at least some of the morbid otherworldliness that made Torment so relentlessly haunting. Then there’s its (mostly) excellent art style. Rather than the pseudo-realist aesthetic of Pillars of Eternity that conveyed a sense of tactile materiality and of looking down at miniaturised model landscapes, Tyranny adopts a more abstract, even ‘cartoony’ look. But this isn’t the same saccharine, bland cartoon style that is so often seen in games. No, this is quite a bit classier and more unique, and has an almost painterly quality to it. Also, it has one of the most beautiful world maps in the history of video games. Just look at it: